Evolution Conference Roadshow: Mike Fitzmaurice Shows us the Right Way to use Forms and Workflow

In my first session at the SharePoint Evolution Conference Roadshow, I learned some best practices for using forms and workflows from Mike Fitzmaurice, a VP at Nintex. Mike’s session, titled Forms and Workflow, Use the Right Tool for the Right Task, revolved around the problematic task of turning physical forms into digital ones, or in his words, from atoms to bits. There are three factors to consider when making this transition.

First, you need to think about the presentation. Is the form laid out in a logical way? The last thing you want is to create unnecessary confusion by presenting information or questions in a sloppy way. The second factor is the process. There is a clear process when filling out a physical form: you have to read the question, come up with an answer, write it down, and then do something with the form. The same is true with digital forms. A user will have to read and fill out the form before submitting it to the proper person. The last factor is the data created in the form, of the answers. When SharePoint first started, importing a word doc form was impossible. Word docs were all binary code and SharePoint had no way to sort through it.

Enter InfoPath. With InfoPath, users were able to transition forms from atoms to bits with reasonable ease. The new problem that this process created was that these forms were not in the optimal format. This is where Mike got into details. Using only out-of-the-box SharePoint, he took us through the best way to deal with this form transition. The general gist is that, with the help of workflows, you can separate the forms into pieces and parse out the acquired data to its desired location.

In a traditional form, the data and the process are incorporated into the form, meaning that everything is in one place in the file. That is fine for simple things, but what happens when you have a form with information that needs to go to different places? You have to send that whole form around and have each person find the information they need. This can get super messy super fast. It can also be difficult to secure the information. For example, think of a section on a form that is marked “for office use only” that is filled in and makes the rounds to people who need other information from that form.

What do you do?

According to Mike, you should break up the form into logical sections and use different workflows to send it around and have it filled in. Even more than that, each section of questions can be items in a task list.
This allows for a high level of security and makes it very easy for people to find the information they need, as it is only the information that they need that comes to them. Additionally, this approach allows the data to be sent to wherever you want it to go on your SharePoint farm. There is a fair amount of set-up needed for this process to function but Mike believes that you’ll find that the results outweigh the means. For each piece of the form, you have to create a simple workflow, send the form, have it filled out, and disperse the collected information. Large complicated forms require several workflows but the end result is much easier on the end-user and is more likely to garner quality information. This system also uses the strengths of SharePoint to ease the overall process. The main issue that many have with this approach is that you have to be accepting of the fact that it is ok to split one form into many.

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